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What the Greek Really Says

There’s a moment in sermons that makes me cringe and my wife grin. She kind of enjoys seeing me squirm.

What is this important moment? It’s when a pastor says, “What the Greek really says is . . .” Sometimes it’s worded a bit differently, but I believe that when you hear or read that phrase or something similar, the vast majority of the time you’re about to get misinformed. This week our pastor used the phrase “knowingly and with full intent” just to get the laugh out of us, which is all in good fun.

There are several reasons for this. First, most pastors are not well enough trained in Greek or Hebrew to make such a statement with confidence. Unfortunately, this is often also true about writers who are not specialists in the language. I have found significant errors–not differences of opinion, but demonstrable errors–in books written by famous writers and published by well-known publishing houses. In one book I found a case where a Hebrew word was cited, and not only was the definition or the suggested glosses (English words suggested to translate it) questionable, but the word itself was simply not in the verse in question.

When I am really uncomfortable is when a speaker who knows that I do read Greek or Hebrew invokes my name and turns to me to ask, “Isn’t that right, Henry?” Then I have to respond in such a way as to avoid diminishing the authority of the speaker or embarrassing him, while at the same time being truthful. I recall one speaker who did this after stating that a certain Greek verse had a specific number of words, and indicating what they meant “literally.” He was wrong both on the word count, and his literal meaning ignored syntax and context. There are those who may wonder why I don’t just say, “No, I don’t agree.” But that brings me to my first major point about this practice.

Most of the time, the speaker using the phrase is making a good point, but that point is simply not supported by the particular element of Greek and Hebrew they cite. Let me make a suggestion. If you can’t fully justify your interpretation from a contextual study of the English text, don’t use it unless you read the source language well. Then if you can justify your interpretation using arguments drawn from the context do so, and still don’t invoke the source language. Your audience will be benefitted much more by hearing a sound exegesis of the text that they can use as an example, than they will if you ask them to rely on your authority in defining a particular word.

Even if you do regard yourself as adequately competent in the source languages, be sure you can justify rigorously your departure from the English translation you have in front of you. In most cases, it was probaby produced by a committee of scholars who may be more skilled than you are. That doesn’t mean you have to bow to their authority, but you should give it due consideration. And even here, if you can justify your thought using good contextual study of the passage, why not do that? Your audience can again learn more from your example than they can if you expect them to rely on your authority.

There are, of course, cases in which discussion of the text in the source language is appropriate. I just think that this occurs rarely in sermons.

Here are a couple of signs to tell when things are off track.

  1. A speaker or writer says, “What this Greek word really means is _______” and then gives you a single English word. In this case, this is probably a preference of one translator over another. Some portion of the semantic range of the Greek word is probably covered by several different English words, with the best match to a particular case being determined by context. There is no one-to-one match.
  2. A speaker or a writer gives a list of English words for one Greek word and then tries to fit all of them into one passage. I recently observed this being done with the list of words given in Strong’s concordance. But Strong’s is just making a list of possible English glosses again, and that whole list was not intended to apply to all cases of that particular word in the source language.
  3. Someone says, “If you understood Greek or Hebrew you would know that my interpretation is correct.” This may be true in some cases, but often it is used to intimidate others. You can use multiple English translations and your Bible dictionary to help give you an idea of what the real situation is. If you do know Greek or Hebrew, and find the need to use this argument, then try to construct what you think would be a better translation, so your English speaking listener can evaluate it more easily. If your view is supported by some English versions, try to list those.

For teachers, speakers, or writers, I would suggest learning to back up claims about the definition of words in the source languages with other arguments based usually on the context of the verse. For those who hear or read, try testing suggestions by looking up the text in multiple English versions. Ultimately, it doesn’t hurt to say, “I don’t know.” None of us knows everything!

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  1. Lowering the tone somewhat, can I tell you my favourite incident of “what the Greek really says…”? It occurred, in those exact words, in a Bible study through Psalms.

    Apparently, the original Greek word for love, used somewhere in Psalm 19, was agape, not eros. (You can’t make this stuff up, really you can’t.) I never did quite fathom the logic of this guy’s position, but what I do know is that I managed to keep a straight face throughout, thus proving the existence of supernatural grace.

  2. Phil Walker said:

    I managed to keep a straight face throughout, thus proving the existence of supernatural grace.


    But what would you have said if he said to you, “Isn’t that right, Phil?”

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